John Henry is a popular American folk hero. His story has been told in print, story and song for almost 150 years. His is a classic tale of man vs. machine which is as valid today as ever, especially here in West Virginia.
Whether or not John Henry was a real person has been debated for over a century, but there is no doubt if you ask people in Talcott. West Virginia. Talcott is the town that sits on top of the Big Bend Tunnel, cut for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad between 1870 and 1872 and the site where the story of John Henry supposedly took place. They have built a beautiful park with a statue to this hero of the working man and local history includes many people who claim to have known John Henry and witnessed his famous competition.
According to the story, John Henry was a steel driver. Steel driving was a difficult and dangerous profession. Essentially, steel drivers were hammer-men who were employed by the railroads to help carve out tunnels. They worked with a "shaker" who placed and held the drill or spike and a blaster who would put charges in the holes and blow out chunks of rock. Once blasted, the rock would be cleared and the drivers and shakers would go back to work. John Henry was considered one of the best. A massive, powerful man he was said to be able to do the work of several men.
During the construction of the Big Bend Tunnel through Big Bend Mountain in the newly formed Summers County, someone came along with a mechanical steam drill. According to the story, the man with the drill told the boss that the future had arrived and that mechanical drills would replace the men who had labored so hard in the tunnel's construction. John Henry, fearing for his livelihood and that of his fellow workers, challenged the drill to a contest. He essentially said that he would lose his job to a machine over his own dead body.
John Henry and the mechanical drill squared off. The machine took an early lead, but the dust got in the workings and caused it to stop. While it was being repaired, John Henry kept hammering away. At the end of the contest, when the dust cleared, John Henry had driven the steel 14 feet and the steam drill had made only 9. John Henry had won. He had beaten the machine. Some accounts have him dying right there on the spot, other say he lived on into old age. Either way, he disappeared into history.
The story has been told and retold countless times, undoubtedly growing with each retelling. John Henry remains a hero to the working man. He stands out as the best there was and a man capable of beating back, even for a day, the path of progress. The fact that he may have died in the process would make him a martyr. We can all celebrate his tenacity.
Here, though, lies the problem with this story. The mechanical drill did not disappear that day. It may have never been used in finishing the Big Bend Tunnel, which opened to trains in 1872. John Henry and his fellow drivers and shakers may have kept their jobs for a few more years, but eventually the mechanical drills would win out. Tunnels are still built today, and mechanical drills are used to build them. There isn't a single steel driver or shaker employed anywhere in the country today. These jobs have become a thing of the past.
Today in America, nobody laments the loss of steel driving jobs. No political candidate plans on bringing back these jobs. Steel drivers were hard workers, they worked in dangerous conditions and many died just trying to provide for their families. But progress took it's toll and one day, though maybe not the day I just wrote about, but one day those jobs simply weren't anymore.
In researching my trip through West Virginia, I have tried to learn a lot about the coal miners. Let me start by saying how much I respect the coal miners. They work hard, in dangerous conditions, to provide for their families. They risk debilitating diseases and injury every day they spend underground. There's is not an easy life. But their way of life is on its way out and there is nothing anyone can do about it.
When America's energy needs shifted away from whale oil, the whalers lost their jobs and had to find work in other industries. When mechanization became viable, the steel drivers found themselves out of work. A combination of shifting energy needs and mechanization will put the country's coal miners out of work much the same. And while this is a terrible blow, it is a blow that will come and trying to dress it up or put it off will change very little. When John Kennedy campaigned in West Virginia in 1960, he warned people of the coming mechanization of the coal industry. Almost 60 years later, that warning is coming to its conclusion.
And while it is devastating to know that a whole industry will shut down, they have held on longer than most thought possible. There are very few jobs in the country which will pay someone $55,000 out of high school, no matter how hard you are willing to work and what conditions you are willing to endure. Very few working class families are able to survive on one income, nor have they been able to for quite some time. That is the reality in the rest of the country, and that reality will have to be endured in coal country. Decades ago, farmers sold out to big business and had to move, often from farms that had been in their families for generations.
Like many of my fellow Americans, I am empathetic towards these hard working people struggling to preserve their way of life and stay in the area they grew up in. Their fight is real, much like John Henry's was in the 1870s. But we cannot bring back steel driving jobs, we will not revive the whaling fleets and coal mining will soon join the list of professions that no longer exist. This day has been coming for generations and while everyone in coal country knew that, the carrot still dangled.
Instead of fighting a losing battle, it's time for coal country to look forward instead of back. Tourism is one of the fastest growing industries in the state, but there is plenty of room for more growth. These old coal towns can find new life in welcoming tourists. The areas they occupy are beautiful, old roads can welcome atv traffic and the coal trails can be blazed for hikers. Through mediums like Airbnb and VRBO, people can open rooms in their homes or their hunting cabins up to visitors and create income almost instantly. Bars can get local musicians to play and restaurants can show visitors how wonderful their traditional way of cooking is. It won't happen overnight, but it can happen. It's one of the only strategies I can think of to help coal country without displacing the people who live there. It will be hard work, but the people who live in these communities are used to hard work. And maybe one day the state will replace the coal miner on their flag with an inn-keeper. I can't help but think that John Henry would have made a heck of a rock climbing instructor, living happily with his wife into old age renting their back cabin out to people and regaling them with tales of his life as a steel driver.